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June 25, 2022
Girl Scouts Story Offers Lessons that Can Apply to any Nonprofit
Book - Tough Cookies
Preparing for a prosperous future starts with recognizing that the status quo isn’t strong enough to sustain the winds of change, and then taking appropriate action, writes Kathy Cloninger in Tough Cookies: Leadership Lessons from 100 Years of the Girl Scouts, which provides a useful blueprint for nonprofits of all stripes.

Cloninger, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, which celebrates its centenary in 2012, observes that the scary thing about the status quo is that it looks perfectly normal: “Business is loping along. There’s no drama. What has always worked is still working fairly well...Maybe sales have slowed a little, but people tell each other to relax: It’s just a slight downtrend. No need to panic.”

But, back in 2004, the Girl Scouts recognized that it was maintaining its membership at an ever higher per-girl cost, relying more on paid staff than volunteers, a trend it couldn’t sustain. Change was in order and Cloninger, with her board, wanted to have it driven from the bottom up, instead of being mandated from the top. Her task was figuring out how to engage one million volunteers.

Her answer: “You go to them and ask their opinions. You listen to their answers. You let them know you are hearing them. You trust that the ones in the trenches can bring great energy and creative thinking to the service of girls.”

That approach reflected the way Cloninger articulated her priorities, which was in terms of girls and not organizational objectives. Those priorities were “Be the voice of girls. Find the leader in each girl. Help each girl stand tall.”

To prepare for a robust future, the Girl Scouts needed to change its structure from 312 councils, each a separate 501(c)(3), that earned revenues from cookie sales, dues, and sales of Girl Scout merchandise. Most importantly, Cloninger writes, the organization needed to clarify its brand in order to generate funds from corporate, public, and private sources.

After much work, the Girl Scouts merged many of its councils so that by 2009 they numbered 112. To help manage this major transformation, the organization hired external consultants to assist in formulating strategy and implementing the restructuring. Among other things, the national organization developed workbooks, given to all councils, providing step-by-step guidance on “how to merge in a collaborative way that would produce the best outcomes for girls.”

Among the many changes wrought by the process begun in 2004 has been the development of a culture of philanthropy within the Girl Scouts. An analysis showed the new organization that it could expect to raise $700 million between 2012 and 2016. A consultant challenged it to go for $1 billion. Startled at first by the suggestion, the goal actually energized the organization.

“Immediately we all jumped up and said, —Yes!’ Nobody said, —There’s no way we could possibly do that.’ Instead, energy flowed through the room...In that moment, we turned a corner,” writes Cloninger.

Instead of being put off by an audacious aspiration, the billion-dollar goal focused the organization and forced it to plan better. It also provided a path to create strong partnerships between the national body and the councils.

Tough Cookies: Leadership Lessons from 100 Years of the Girl Scouts is available from Wiley .

Reviewed by Peter Lowy

October 2011
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